Cameron Nies and Abigail Graham weren’t born when the rock band Queen was in its heyday, but they’re having a blast bringing the killer hits to life in the new Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse show, “We Will Rock You,” a fun jukebox musical opening this week.
Circa is launching its 46th season with what the British Theatre Guide calls “spectacle worthy of a rock video,” with the QC premiere of “We Will Rock You.” This high-energy celebration of the legendary rock and pop band boasts two dozen timeless hits — including “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions,” “Somebody to Love” and the iconic title tune.
Nies, 25, plays Galileo Figaro, the character most like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. In real life, he’s a Texas-born graduate from Pace University’s Musical Theatre program in New York City. Some of his past work includes Godspell (ACT of Connecticut), and new projects such as Reunion ‘69 (NYC), & Descendants (Disney Theatrical Productions).
“It’s not the story of Freddie Mercury’s life at all,” Circa director Amy McCleary said this week of “We Will Rock You.”
“What’s really interesting is the show was written 20 years ago and it’s still incredibly relevant,” McCleary said. “Everyone is online and everyone is obsessed with their online presence. They’re fed all this information, like today through TikTok and Instagram.”
“The show is about celebrating individuality and breaking free from those blinders, and realizing you can be yourself. And also, through being yourself, you create a better sense of community. There’s this great group of Bohemians and they’re all named after famous rock stars.”
“The motif of the show is the feeling of individuality has been lost,” Nies said. The music helps pull that out of him and finding his own voice.
“He doesn’t really know who he is,” he said of his character, named after the immortal, epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “He’s with this group of people who are all alike.”
When he meets this group of Bohemians in the show, they help him realize you can be more than what’s in your bubble, Nies said.
Roger Taylor wrote Queen’s” Radio Ga Ga” in 1984, which Nies said was very prescient about today’s reliance on screens, addiction to our devices. The lyrics include:
“We watch the shows, we watch the stars
On videos for hours and hours
We hardly need to use our ears
How music changes through the years
Let’s hope you never leave, old friend
Like all good things, on you we depend
So stick around, ’cause we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual”
A message of the show is to break free of technology, to look up from your phones to the people around you, Nies said.
“Just realizing you don’t have to be like the people in your phone, like a TikTok dancer,” McCleary said. “You can do your own dancing. Create something new, because so much of what we do is so derivative of what we see.”
“Amy has done an incredible job of showcasing everyone’s individuality in the cast,” said Graham, a 24-year-old graduate of Binghamton University in New York. “It’s been a beautiful process.”
A futuristic fable
Conceived and created by Ben Elton, “We Will Rock You” is set 300 years in the future in a globally corporate world. Planet Earth has been renamed the Planet Mall, and its leader – the sinister Killer Queen – has banned all non-computer generated music.
She heard of a prophecy involving hidden instruments on the planet and a “Dreamer” who will show her people the way to freedom, and consequently orders her chief of police to crush any potential rebellion. Meanwhile, the young student Galileo is desperate to break free from this capitalist world. He hears lyrics in his dreams and is heralded as the star of the prophecy by the Bohemians who have been searching for the lost instruments.
To fulfill the prophecy, Galileo must evade the clutches of the Killer Queen and finally bring back rock’s Holy Grail: the Brian May guitar buried in the remains of Wembley Stadium.
The show also includes “Under Pressure,” “I Want It All,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It has enjoyed many international and touring productions (including last year at Timber Lake Playhouse) and has been seen in six of the world’s continents.
For Circa ’21’s version, the director/choreographer and music director are the respective team of Amy McCleary and Ron May, who previously collaborated here on the jukebox musical hits “Saturday Night Fever” in 2021 and “Disaster” in 2022.
The cast includes Bobby Becher, Derrick Bertram, Natalie Carrera, Marc Christopher, Abigail Graham, Sarah Hayes, Mekhi Holloway, Kevin Korczynski, Taylor Lynn, Anthony Milfelt, Michaela Moore, Caitie Moss, Tristan Tapscott and Kiera Lynn.
Jukebox is her ‘wheelhouse’
McCleary called jukebox musicals her “wheelhouse,” having directed “Saturday Night Fever” and “Disaster!” at Circa and “Mamma Mia!” at Florida’s Broadway Palm Dinner Theater (which also featured Graham).
“I think it’s the music that gets me,” she said. “I have such fond memories of listening to my parents’ records in my living room and dancing away to them. I would create my own stories through those records – I would create my own jukebox musical as a child.”
McCleary also has choreographed the Elvis jukebox musical, “All Shook Up.”
“This one is quickly becoming my favorite; I just love it,” she said of “We Will Rock You.”
Graham plays a David Bowie character and other Bohemians are based on stars like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. She dyed her hair (a pinkish hue) last September and McCleary saw it, evoking a Bowie-esque flair.
“Now, we’re focusing on the Ziggy Stardust version of David Bowie, who I hold so near and dear to my heart,” Graham said. “I love him so much. We’ve been playing with a lot of his expressiveness, his fluidity, his makeup. It’s great.”
“I love dyeing my hair, since was little,” she said. “My first hair color was hot pink in 7th grade,” she recalled. “Over the years, I have convinced all of my friends at all stages in my life to sit down in the kitchen with me and dye my hair. It’s like a rite of passage now. I was purple for a long time.”
McCleary loves the Queen song “No One But You,” about how we identify with stars when we’re young.
“We’re all searching for identity and it doesn’t matter their race or their sex, but if they speak to you with their lyrics and their rhythms, you identify with that person,” she said. “I identify with Freddie Mercury and Billy Joel; like these are my heroes. They’re not a middle-aged white woman. That’s who I love.”
Graham is attracted to the idea that you don’t have to fit inside a box.
“I don’t really fit in a box, so I think that’s really important,” she said. These characters are considered Bohemians because they rebel against society, against norms, McCleary said.
“They feel they don’t have to fit in, go to a 9-to-5 job and wear a suit and tie,” she said. “They can wear fringe and lace gloves.”
The hit Bowie/Mercury single “Under Pressure” is in this show, among 28 numbers, which does not include the Queen hit “You’re My Best Friend.”
Nies has never done a jukebox musical before (“Rock of Ages” is a dream show of his). The most recent musical he did was “Godspell,” by ACT of Connecticut (in Ridgefield).
Nies called “We Will Rock You” just “wild and free and fun to be a part of.”
“There are some wild and crazy moments, because it’s set so far in the future,” he said. “We’re rediscovering things that we’ve lost.”
Graham worked with McCleary in “The Wizard of Oz” at Broadway Palm, including where the Yellow Brick Road actually dances. “I just adore Abigail,” the director said.
Graham said she had a blast in “Mamma Mia!,” and they’re thrilling shows because she loves ABBA and Queen.
“There’s a similarity between the harmonies, for sure,” McCleary said of the two ’70s supergroups.
Celebrating girl power
The show set designer is Shannon Suit-Moore and lighting designer is Haley Brown (with builder/tech director Nick Divarco). This is the first time McCleary has had an all-female design team.
“That’s really cool for me, because generally, when I sit at a tech table and we do a production meeting, it’s just me and a bunch of guys,” she said. “Especially like, doing a rock and roll musical, you wouldn’t think it’d be all these chicks, but here we are. We like to rock just as much.”
It’s a high two-level set, which McCleary loves. Her home theater, the Broadway Palm, doesn’t have this kind of height.
“So whenever I’m here, you know I’m going to make use of that,” the director said of Circa. “We also have these stair units, which we utilize to create different locations in the story.”
“It’s like a jungle gym, this set. It’s really fun,” McCleary said. “I just love creating pictures on stage. I think the pictures we create for this show are really beautiful.”
The futuristic show in the historic theater features lots of crazy lighting, evoking a rock concert, she said. “It’s really cool,” the director said.
Both Nies and Graham are making their Circa debuts in “We Will Rock You.”
“The theater itself is truly spectacular,” he said. “I was telling Amy, they’ll never make another building like this again. I’m just grateful to be performing – and once you see the set, the lighting and the costumes on this stage that Circa offers, it’s truly a spectacle.”
“I think it’s the coolest set I’ve ever been at,” Graham said.
As an actor, it’s always a challenge to stand out from the crowd, Nies said.
“Walking that fine line of being inspired by somebody, but also finding your own path is a very hard thing to navigate sometimes,” he said. “A big thing with this show is these people they’re being influenced by, it’s more how they dress or how they’re willing to be themselves, that allows them to become themselves.”
Nies and Graham said the Circa cast and crew have been very welcoming.
“It’s hard to come to a new theater, because many times people work here all the time,” Graham said. “You’re always nervous. The folks here have been so welcoming and so kind, and I felt like I was instantly taken in. There’s only four of us who haven’t worked here before, but as soon as we got here, I felt like, ‘now you’re part of our family.’”
Running through March 11, “We Will Rock You” will be performed on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5:30 p.m. and Wednesday matinées at 1:15 p.m. Pre-show entertainment featuring Circa’s wait staff, the Bootleggers, also will precede all performances.
Ticket prices are $60.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $53.73 for the Wednesday matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office, at 1828 3rd Ave. in Rock Island or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2.